January 28, 2017

Manhole: What's Up with This Misogynist Serial Killer?

This lazily scripted horror movie about a serial killer who primarily targets young women may make you sick to your stomach. Personally, it nauseates me to think what might've drawn writer-director Shin Jae-young to make yet another grisly fright flick involving a seriously deranged man (Jung Kyung-ho), with an endless supply of crowbars, chasing attractive women through — in this instance — the dimly lit sewers of downtown Seoul. And I'm someone who enjoys horror movies! But this one is just so shoddily crafted. Are the flashbacks revealing the subterranean psychopath somehow survived a fire that burnt up his siblings and mother supposed to explain his murderous actions? Why doesn't he torch his victims then? And why isn't he fixated on killing older men if his dad is ultimately the culprit? And how in the world does he manage to be in so many places at one time?

In order for this sloppy narrative to work, a few components must be put into place. You need an incompetent police force — which you get here through an easily unnerved cop (Jo Dal-hwan) and his buddy, a former officer (Choi Duek-mun) who left the force to spend more time with his daughter (Lee Young-yoo). You will also benefit from captives who are not particularly resourceful. By making one victim deaf (Kim Sae-ron) and another, a mere child (Sung Yoo-bin), Shin theoretically makes some of their plights exponentially more challenging. In truth, it really doesn't hurt or help their chances of survival.

Who lives? Who dies? Who cares? By the end of this movie, I had neither curiosity about characters I hadn't seen for awhile nor relief for the ones that were currently on screen. At the end, when a shot of a figure wearing night goggles clues us into the bleak promise of more kidnappings and killings to come, I burst out with my one blood-curdling scream of the evening. I was truly scared... that a sequel to Manhole might possibly be made in the future. Any chance they might call it Womanhole and reverse all the genders?

January 22, 2017

Mug Travel: Curing Agoraphobia in Children

Sam, the blue-eyed, big-headed, breakfast-craving little boy in the animated kiddie pic Mug Travel — a.k.a. My Friend Bernard — is terrified of everything. I mean everything! Heights, yapping dogs, monstrous shadows, polar bears, flying cups, water dragons, falling candy jars, escaping songbirds, et cetera. Writing out this list, I realize that he has every reason to be scared of some of those things. (Who wouldn't run like mad if a crazy penguin started coming at you making weird noises and flapping his wings?) But in this cartoon, we're led to believe that being freaked out way too easily is something that Sam is going to need to get over. The therapeutic process outlined by writer-director Lim Ah-ron includes soaring through the air in a spinning teacup, being abandoned in the middle of an arctic wilderness with no thermal underwear, and being transported to a desert without a thermos or a camel or a cellular phone. He may have a magical talisman to help him but he's still going to need to fall from plenty of high places to get the cure.

By the end, once his re-education is complete, that dog that used to terrorize him across the neighborhood will be licking his face with appreciative affection. And while I'm easily moved by the bonding between boy and canine, I'm still not game to recommend this animated flick to anyone as a good family film. The stereotype of the female penguin as a vain creature and little more than a love interest, in particular, is inexcusable at this point in history; the squeaky, preverbal noises made by characters, both human and not, is likely to drive adults up the wall. There's something bizarrely right about having the helpful Santa encountered in the beginning be replaced by a beardless man who looks like a recovering junkie ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at the end since this movie is, if nothing else, a total trip. But as trips go, it's not neither the most hallucinatory nor the most surreal. In short, there are much better Korean cartoon films for kids out there like Doggy Poo or Wolf Daddy, both of which have better animation as well as storytelling than this. Watch one of those instead.

January 14, 2017

Under the Sun: Sticking to the Surface

Intended as a culturally-shaming documentary about a North Korean family whose daughter is joining a national children's union (in the arts, perhaps?), to me Under the Sun feels more like a behind-the-scenes DVD extra for a canceled informercial about Pyongyang — basically a long featurette that's been carelessly stripped of its directorial commentary. And so we're subjected to silently observed mass ceremonies of unknown meaning and various takes of rehearsed testimonials about increased productivity of milk-making, some technological improvements for garment workers, and the medicinal properties of kimchi, with the hopes that we'll string it all together ourselves. It all sounds canned (because it is canned) and it all reads flat (because director Vitaly Mansky wasn't allowed to delve). But can we really glean that much from the surface alone? And isn't there something akin to relief in seeing a people who aren't constantly smiling for the camera even when they're having their portrait taken? Mansky may intend to show "cruel" but what I saw sometimes was a respite from the fake happiness endemic here.

One aside: There's an extended moment at the midway point during which a highly decorated general, with so many medals he's practically wearing chain-mail, shares some war stories with a group of elementary school students. The camera lingers on this little girl who is clearly tired and you get the feeling the filmmaker is showing us how boring these speeches are, how life-sucking the ongoing indoctrination process is, but all I could think was, I hope that little girl and her family don't get into trouble because of this film. There's actually nothing significant to be learned by showing a sleepy-eyed youngster at any assembly. As such, this felt like irresponsibility on the documentarian's part as he was making a very dubious point. The closing scene of the young girl crying as she recites her country's version of the pledge of allegiance didn't feel as though it were damning her oppressors — who I know are real! — it felt like propagandists making a kid do something when she just wants to go to bed.

January 8, 2017

The Wailing: Taking Its Time to Meet the Devil

The Wailing is that type of horror movie that takes its own sweet time building its world and then doesn't back down from its supernatural elements by trying to write them off as psychological aberrations. No. Ghosts, shamans, satan, and zombies are all very much real in Na Hong-jin's small-town world. And what starts off as a series of disturbing deaths — are they murders, suicides, fatal-disease-caused-by-a-mushroom victims, who can say? — are soon revealed to be part of a larger battle between good and evil. Or, to be honest, us and evil, after acknowledging that we're actually not so good. When the teams are defined that way, evil feels like it has an unfair advantage. But isn't that what we've suspected all along? God help us indeed!

And poor, unlucky Jong-goo (an excellent Kwak Do-won) definitely needs some help! Because he's just a local cop, a cheating husband, a doting father, and a scaredy cat. He's not ready to take on the devil when the dark underlord decides to take possession of the body of his daughter (Kim Hwan-hee)? If that's even what's going on! Definitely, the Japanese guy (Jun Kunimura) is creepy. As is that young woman (Chun Woo-hee) in white who keeps showing up and acting all strange. Yet does it go to follow that they're actually agents of Hell? Should he go along with his mother-in-law (Her Jin) and have an exorcism performed? Even if it drives the little girl crazy? Why isn't that skinny priest who is the cousin (Kim Do-yoon-I) of his partner more help? Can the shaman (a superb Hwang Jung-min) be trusted? I completely understand why he'd round up his friends to attack the enemy but next time, bring something more lethal than gardening tools!

This is only the third feature film by the director Na but man, what a great track record he's got. The other two are The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, both of which made my best of lists at the end of the years I saw them. This one is definitely going to be a contender for 2017, even if we are only one week in.

January 4, 2017

Milkshake: A Korean Korean-American American Film

Being one of four co-founders of the Filmette Film Festival at Soho's Harvestworks in 2016, I got to be part of a fairly intense curatorial process which involved soliciting, screening, judging, rejecting, and most especially arguing for movies submitted from all over the world. As I was telling someone about the wonderful long shorts and short features we'd finally selected, I was asked whether my fondness for one called "Milkshake" was related at all to my passion for Korean film. I was caught off-guard because I didn't know if I could safely label "Milkshake" Korean or not. The filmmaker, Ko Sangjin, was born and raised in South Korea, sure, but the film was shot in English in the US; the lead role is a young Korean man, yes, but he's played by an Asian-American actor (Vin Kridakorn) who isn't Korean at all. So does "Milkshake" qualify as Korean? At first, I thought, no. Then I thought, yes. To be honest, I'm still not sure. So should I cover it on my Korean film blog? The answer to that question is easy... Of course!

A sweet 30-minute flick about two orphans struggling to make ends meet (and to stay a family) in NYC, "Milkshake" does share some important qualities with the best of Korean films. Ko's got a great sense of framing and has wisely enlisted the help of a talented cinematographer (Kitanan Chewvej) so "Milkshake" always looks terrific. Ko also elicits incredibly naturalistic performances out of his two leads (the other is a very young Madeline Lupi). But what strikes me as most Korean about this little charmer is how "Milkshake" isn't afraid to suddenly veer from the sentimental to the dramatic or from the optimistic to the depressing without warning. Unlike American movies, Korean films have always struck me as much less concerned with sticking to a tone or a viewpoint and because of that there's a certain excitement that comes with not knowing what to expect next. As for Ko, currently working on his first feature, I'm definitely excited to see what's next for him, regardless of whether he chooses to shoot here or at home, in Korean or in English, or some combination of any of the above.